Disclaimer: Marvel's, not mine. I'm sure they'd have a fit if they saw what I was doing, too. Rated R for language and strong adult themes.

Notes: Between the X-Files novel, episodes of L&O:CI and Stargate:SG1 fic, I've got the partner dynamic on the brain. And, like always when presented with random and frustrating inspiration, I've got back to the basics. So you get Six Pack era Nate&Dom. Problem is, this became far more warped than I expected, and I can't be sure even I believe it works. But it wanted to be done that way, as my roommates can attest to (I'm afraid I yelled at my own fic a lot). This is all A.j.'s fault. Happy Birthday. ;) Thanks go out to Mitai for the beta.

Sideshow

by Timesprite

They've never been quiet together. Oh, stealth on a mission is one thing--in that respect they've turned silence into an art form. Looks between them can convey a hell of a lot more than words. But on a personal level, they are loud. Loud when they argue and loud when they're enjoying each other's company. Four days ago, they went silent with each other.

She's been gone entirely for three, which is long enough to have Hammer yelling (the man is a misogynist, in the end, though not stupid enough to ignore talent when it's saving his ass), and Bridge giving him pointed looks (G.W. has warned him before about crossing lines). Kane is new enough to not understand anything that's transpired, and Grizzly has been reduced to monosyllabic utterances in his presence, a sure sign that he ought to start watching his back.

He knows why his partner has gone, and he knows she will be back. Like a stray cat, she's showing her independence. He's angered her and she's letting him know it--allowing him to take the full brunt of the trouble that comes with upsetting the team dynamic. Not that her physical absence is required for that last, he's a better target for the blame than someone who's barely more than a girl--accomplished and aged beyond her years though she may be.

When she finally comes back it is with indifference, in her leather coat and leather pants, her hair free around her shoulders, the way she never wears it around him. A half-hearted makeup job makes it look as if she's covering up a black eye, and in a way she is, he supposes. A pale skinned girl with a permanent black eye which reminds him every time he looks at her that she could be broken with relative ease if someone pressed one of the emotional buttons she has not learned to fully mask. It reminds him of how very much he hopes he never sees that happen--that he will never do it himself. That protective feeling makes him wonder if he's become a sentimental old man--if not an altruistic one.

He goes outside when the glaring and the frosty silences get to be too much and finds her lounging near the door, smoking. He thinks the habit a repulsive one. It reminds him that she has come to them from a troubled and broken life, and the work they do is leading her down a path not much more promising than the one she has so recently left. He knows the game she has instigated here is one of power, and that everything about her--the way she leans against the concrete wall, giving him an ample view of the long, lean torso her shirt does very little to conceal; the detachment with which she has acknowledged his arrival--is meant to convey her independence. Bruises show a livid purple against albino skin, their placement telling him that she has been with someone else, shared with someone else something he is not comfortable admitting he wants. They are an outward sign of her anger with him, her desire to hurt him. She has let someone else hurt her just to get to him in some warped game he feels too old to fully comprehend.

"What the hell did you think you were doing?" His voice is harsher than he wants it to be, but he's angry, and can't help it.

"Taking some down time," she replies without turning towards him.

"Without telling us where you were going. Pulling that kind of shit isn't acceptable, and you know it. The team--"

"Stuff the 'team,' speech, Nate. I'd expect that from Bridge or Hammer. Not you. You know this isn't about the goddamned team." She flicks her cigarette and ash drifts to the pavement.

Her wrist is one continuous, ugly abrasion, and it's all too easy for him to imagine all the other places she must be damaged. The anger sits like a dead weight at the pit of his stomach--he's surprised at how badly he wants to find the one who did this to her, consensual or not. "Then what's it about?" He feigns ignorance. He knows what this is about.

"It's you. Trying to protect me." She whirls on him, jabbing him in the chest with a finger. "I don't need that brand of paternal bullshit, okay? I know how to do my job."

He closes his eyes, knowing his feelings for her are anything but fatherly, and focuses on the case he has to argue. "I wasn't protecting." He looks at her again, keeping his tone measured. She's angry, and she'll use any excuse to lash out that he gives her. "You needed breathing room. That's all."

"You think I couldn't handle the situation, Nathan? Is that it? That may be Hammer's brand of bullshit, but I thought we understood each other."

He holds back a sigh as his mind does an instant replay of their last mission and the horror they'd found waiting for them in a dark basement. Sees his partner's face go bloodless, not from the sight, ghastly as it was, but from the memories it obviously evoked. He'd gotten her out of the house as fast as was possible--the mission was obviously a loss, anyway. What she sees as protection he can only see as a duty to a friend who would never ask for help. He wishes he could somehow convey to her that there is no magical cure for the scars he can see all over her soul. "Never." His voice is low now, but fierce. He needs to punch through her anger. "But it wasn't something you needed to deal with. I could see that much."

"I don't--"

"I know what you're feeling right now, trust me." It's hard, being this close to her, nearly nose to nose. He adds a split lip to the tally of injuries the third party has inflicted on her while trying not to let that anger choke him again. "You think you should have been stronger than that. It's an understandable reaction. I imagine life hasn't been very nice to you." She isn't in the habit of being kind to herself, either. That much is obvious. "But you're wrong. I have years worth of experience on you, and that didn't stop me from wanting to run--not walk--run from that place. Run until I found the bastards responsible, and pounded them to a pulp. We can't help the reflexes life leaves us with. It doesn't mean you're weak. And it doesn't mean you have to let some stupid bastard beat the shit out of you to prove a point to me." He takes a ragged breath and a step backwards, having admitted that much. He reaches for her arm lightly, examining her wrist, which has actually begun to swell. "Oath... did you have to let him do this?"

"What makes you think it has anything to do with you?" She yanks the arm away, tugging the cuff down to cover the damage as she fixes him with an icy glare. "Maybe I was just having a good time."

'Because,' he wants to begin. Because he knows her too well. Because they've already broken so many rules here. They've become a pair, partners in a situation that has no room for personal attachments, and he feels suddenly that he has failed in letting things come as far as they have. He has been wrong to let her get to him. And if he is wrong about her motivations now, how much else must he call into question? "We don't have the time for self-destructive behavior." It's a lie. He's hiding behind his role as senior partner again, hiding behind the rules of team dynamics he knows are not entirely accurate. It's something he's had to relearn since coming to this era. They are a team, not a clan, and that is an important distinction. They're bound more by the pursuit of paychecks than by any common cause. There is camaraderie, but that's never the same thing. In a way, it's convenient. He knows that someday, his mission will require him to leave them all behind, and the distance will make that all the easier.

Except with her. For whatever reason, the woman in front of him is the one person who has managed to get under his skin. She's done something he's been trying to avoid since coming here. She's made him care, and it distresses him even as he realizes just how alone he's been. He can hate himself for letting it happen, but he can't bring himself to hate her for doing it to him. She can hurt him, and the knowledge is oddly comforting. It reminds him that he isn't dead yet, no matter how often he feels otherwise.

The knowledge that he may, someday, have to hurt her in return burns at the back of his throat.

"Please don't do it again." It's not an order. The universe itself couldn't force Domino to follow orders. It's a request, instead, as sincere a one as he can make it. He just has to hope she sees it.

Something in here eyes softens a little. She's still mad, of course. She probably will be for days, though how much is really anger at herself--at what she perceives as her display of weakness--is open for debate. But some of the heat empties out of her, and he knows he was right. The display was for his benefit, its effectiveness now apparent. He can also see her uncertainty for the first time.

"Decide, Nate. Maybe I just suck at making good choices, but at least I make them. If you want it to stop, make up your god-damned mind."

With that she's gone. Funny, how he can still feel her fingers on his conscience, telling him he can't leave things as they are.

----

He doesn't like feeling cornered. It's a soldier's reaction, an inbred instinct, and a couple of beers don't even take the edge off. This has to get resolved--there are four days until the next mission and two of those will be consumed with preparations. Whatever is going to happen, he knows, needs to happen now. Tomorrow will be too late.

He knows he hesitates not out of fear, but because he's on the verge of upsetting a careful balance. They've become friends in the last few months, surprisingly close ones. Tacit knowledge of each other's traumas--spoken in volumes by their respective shrouded pasts--has let them get closer, perhaps. There's something important in the dynamic they share, something that has bonded them. The only catch being that she's a woman--a very attractive one--and his appreciation of her vibrant personality leads to an appreciation of other aspects as well.

He thinks it was her eyes that finally did him in.

He realizes he the situation need not be as hopeless as he feels it is--there is still room for rational thought. Room for her to calm down and time for him to purge himself of ill-conceived desire. He's nearly twice her age, and the blind could see that she has had a hard life already. He shouldn't even be contemplating what he is, unofficial regulations or no.

None of that logic is enough to stop the burning want, the irrational thought that if she needed anyone, it should be him. Because he knows her. Because he could help and keep her from harm.

Funny, because he's at her door now, and he knows, one way or the other, the evening will end in harm. He opens the door anyway.

She's stretched out on the bed, using those long limbs to their best advantage. Her shorts aren't covering much more than necessary in a residence filled with men. She's definitely braless under the tank-top, though she's evidently been in the shower, so that doesn't mean much, he supposes. He's not surprised to see the marks on her ankles to match her abraded wrists. He walks to the foot of the bed and stops, waiting.

"Nathan."

Her tone is strange, and he can't place her mood. Her mind is white-hot to his senses, but so hard to read. "We should--"

She leans forward, drawing her knees up and draping her arms across them. Damp hair slides into her face. "Talk?"

He nods.

"Really. What should we talk about?" One hand pushes her hair from her face and those startling violet eyes of hers bore their way into his soul. "That he tied me up good and tight? Fucked me more than he strictly had permission to?" Her smile is like a knife-edge. "Does that turn you on?"

He doesn't react for a split second, and then the impact of the words, the venom behind them, strikes. It burns like a supernova in his belly, not because she angers him, but because he realizes then just how little she values herself. Just how much she hates herself. "Oath. Is that really what this is about? You want a hand in your masochism?"

"You're one to talk," she snarls. "You don't get it, do you? You think it's all about that goddamned mission, and not the way you've been looking at me for the last three months? Goddamnit, Nate. You think I'm blind? Stupid? You think after the life I've lived I can't tell when a man wants me backed up against his headboard and screaming?" She slid to the end of the bed and kneeled there, grabbing a fistful of his shirt. "I did what I did to make you take notice. And you're here, so you obviously want something."

Pushing her away is a matter of instinct. She falls backward on the bed and stares up at him, anger written all over her face. "Oh, come on," she snaps. "Tell me I'm off base. Tell me you've got nothing but the most innocent of intentions here. You can't do it, can you Nathan? But you're still going to act like some fucking saint while eyeing me up and running your little fantasies through your head." She pushes herself up on her elbows. "I can be a hell of a lot better than your imagination."

"This is what you want." He does not take a soft tone with her, lets the anger and frustration she has stirred within him bubble to the surface, take control of his reason. It's not a fair fight and she's not going to start pulling her punches. "Here. Now."

"Yeah, unless you've got some problem with damaged goods." Her lips quirk upward in a sadistic smile. "Don't worry. He didn't break me too badly. I'm sure I can still be... enjoyable."

She's laying there bruised and abused and talking so carelessly while his mind replays a memory more than a decade old and as raw as yesterday--his wife, his beloved Aliya dumped at the edges of their camp battered and bleeding and worse, they would discover--laying there for him to find.

And this is worse, so much worse, because Dom is inviting this, asking him to take part in something so utterly hateful it makes him see red. He wants to shake it out of her, fuck it out of her until she's sobbing and ready to see reason again.

It's not so hard to pin her to the bed. She's willing, even if she winces as his hand--the left one--closes on those bird-boned wrists of hers, holding them above her head as he undoes his fly, freeing himself of constraints. She's twisting beneath him, trying for more contact, neck craning for a bruising kiss as he shoves her shorts down and her shirt up, callused fingers cruel over abused skin, adding to her menagerie of bruises.

The first thrust catches her off guard. Her eyes widen, bright with unrestrained tears, while the second finds her stoic, biting her lip and holding her breath. He's hurting her--even if he were gentle now he'd be hurting her--such is the state the one before him left her in. She goes completely still, and he can hear it, the hitch in her breathing as he drives forward, the barely restrained hiccough of a sob. And that's all he needs, all he needs to roll away and end this twisted game.

There is no release for either of them, save, perhaps, the tears that soak into his shirt as she buries her head in his shoulder and sobs.

End